Afghanistan is a prime example of an "extreme environment" when it comes to managing global supply chains, says Geary. It’s a landlocked country that has lived in a state of strife for at least three decades. "That leads to all sorts of different or unique challenges," he says. For example, a small outpost of Marines on a hilltop observation post needed to be supplied with food, ammunition, suppliers and water, "but it was impossible to drive a truck up the road." The solution was to launch unmanned delivery drones, which have now been in operation for close to three years. They can carry up to 4,500 pounds as far as 250 miles.
They are no small devices. To create the drone, manufacturers took an FAA-certified helicopter used in logging operations and retrofitted it with remote controls. To date, the craft, which can operate at night and are quieter than a typical copter, have flown around 1,900 missions without a single loss.
Based on the success of the drones in Afghanistan, designers are now beginning to explore applications in commercial environments with “extreme” requirements, such as fighting forest fires. There’s even a version that can carry and release a directed stream of water over a fire. The drones can also be deployed for resupplying oil and gas drilling sites in the Arctic. Says Geary: “It’s a classic example of the bleeding out of innovation – creativity that takes place in one environment and has applications elsewhere.”
Geary has been working with military logistics applications since the mid-2000s, including in Iraq. “It’s just a matter of taking the classic disciplines and applying then in a different environment,” he says.
Creative thinking can also yield new ideas for the sourcing of materials in challenging environments. Paint, for example, can be obtained locally instead of shipping it all the way from the U.S. The switch reduces logistics requirements and enhances relations with local providers and citizens.
Similar lessons can be applied to extreme environments in the U.S., such as the part of the East Coast that was affected by Superstorm Sandy, Geary says.
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